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The End of the Cold War

By Thomas Blanton

The Cold War met a miraculous end during the late 1980s

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The Cold War met a miraculous end during the late 1980s, with neither a bang nor a whimper. Instead, the lasting images of the Cold War’s demise were almost all peaceful (except in Romania) yet incandescent. Hammers and chisels reduced the Berlin Wall to souvenir rocks while Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared out over the Brandenburg Gate. A demonstrator handed dandelions to armored police in front of signs that said “Havel to the Castle,” and within days, indeed, the dissident playwright became President of Czechoslovakia. Grizzled union activists from Solidarity celebrated their 99-to-1 victory in Polish elections, as workers’ ballots evicted the dictatorship of the proletariat. Goulash reformers took down the barbed wire on Hungary’s borders and thousands of East Germans boarded trains to the West – the beginning of the end for the Wall. Even the Securitate’s violent last stand in Bucharest and Timisoara – snipers on the rooftops and a rushed show trial for the last Stalinist standing (Ceaucescu) – provided the exception that proved the rule. This all took place in the year of miracles, 1989; but hardly anyone predicted such an end for Stalin’s empire, for the division of Europe, or for the Cold War.

Why did the Cold War end? And why did it end peacefully? How did it happen that an empire founded on conquest by Stalin’s armies and repression by secret police chose not to strike back, not to use violence as the end approached? Did the policies of the United States win the Cold War, or was the outcome the result of processes mostly internal to the Soviet Union? Was the growing disparity between the economies of West and East the key factor in the Soviet Union essentially giving up the fight, or was the “new thinking” of Soviet leaders more crucial to the end of the Cold War? Answers to these questions are as varied as the arguments about why the Cold War started. There is even debate over when exactly the Cold War did end.

But there is no debate about the centrality of the Cold War to the 20th century, and that should be our starting point for looking at the Cold War’s end. As a superpower confrontation, ideological contest, arms race, and competition for geopolitical influence, the Cold War dominated international relations for nearly a half-century. It shaped the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union and deeply affected their societies and their political, economic, and military institutions. By justifying the projection of U.S. power and influence all over the world, the Cold War facilitated the assertion of global leadership by the United States. By providing Soviet leaders with an external enemy to justify their repressive internal regime and external empire, it helped perpetuate the grip of the Communist Party on power. In both countries, the Cold War compelled ongoing mobilization for war, locking the Soviet Union even tighter into the bifurcated command economy (First World military and space programs, Third World consumer goods) that led to its downfall. At the same time, such mobilization pushed the United States towards a stronger central state and hybrid economic management that, ironically, produced progress by reducing social inequalities and creating a “social bargain” within a market system much reformed since the depths of the Great Depressions of the 1930s.

The Cold War was at the center of world politics in the second half of the twentieth century. In addition to its impact on the superpowers, the Cold War caused and sustained the division of Europe, and within Europe, Germany. It also facilitated the reconstruction and reintegration of Germany, Italy, and Japan into the international system following their defeat in World War II. The impact of the Cold War was especially great in the Third World where it overlapped and interacted with longer-term trends like decolonization and sweeping social and economic changes. The Cold War led to the division of Vietnam and Korea and to costly wars in both nations – with millions of casualties – and it exacerbated conflicts throughout the Third World. During crises, the Cold War’s nuclear arsenals even threatened the end of human civilization.

Now we know how the story turned out, and it is largely a happy ending. Yet this knowledge keeps us from understanding what it was really like in those days at the end of the Cold War. With the passage of time, we have gained some measure of objectivity and distance—not to mention hindsight – but we have lost the immediacy, the emotions, the contingencies, and the risks that were so keenly felt by the people who lived those events. Looking back, we tend to see (or to create in our heads) a causal chain of actions and contexts that lead, inexorably, necessarily, even predictably to the outcome that we now know. As the Czech scholar and dissident Vilem Precan has written, “Nothing is farther from the truth than such an interpretation; nothing is less fair to the people involved at the time, nothing is less just to their risky search for a commensurate reaction to a situation that is in moments of social crisis extraordinarily confusing and fraught with danger.” Similarly, the British scholar and eyewitness to the revolutions of 1989, Timothy Garton Ash, has warned of the perils of “retrospective determinism,” that is, assuming that because things turned out a certain way, they had to turn out that way.

This essay seeks to restore some of those individual choices to the story of the end of the Cold War. First, we will look at the problem of carbon-dating the Cold War’s conclusion, and get a sense of the very different perspectives on when it ended and why. Then, by focusing on a handful of people – some famous and some virtually unknown – this narrative will use human characters in an anthropomorphic sense, as stand-ins or representations for long-term trends and short-term decisions that contributed to the peaceful demise of superpower confrontation. At the same time, the choices these people made illustrate the contingencies, the what-might-have-been, the roads not taken, and the risks involved, and thus help us see that history as they lived it, looking forward.

When Did the Cold War End?

The debates begin with the date of the ending. For example, the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer had no doubt about the Cold War: "We know its exact dates. On March 12, 1947 [the Truman Doctrine speech], the United States entered the fight (late, as usual: Stalin had been at it at least since V-E Day). And it ended at the stroke of midnight, Dec. 31, 1991, when the Soviet Union didn't just surrender, it vanished from the map." Yet one of the leading White House officials during 1989, Robert Hutchings, concluded that there was no V-CW Day: "Americans of an earlier generation knew when V-E Day and V-J Day were; there were dates on the calendar marking victory in Europe and victory over Japan in 1945. But the Cold War ended on no certain date; it lacked finality.... The end of the Cold War thus evoked among the American public little sense of purpose fulfilled – and even less of responsibility for the tasks of postwar construction."

Hutchings alerts us that, before we start etching Krauthammer’s dates on a memorial on the Mall, we would profit from a closer look. For one thing, the Soviet Union lowered its flag over the Kremlin on December 25, not 31, 1991, when the Russian Federation flag took its place. Even before December 1991, the Soviet Union and the United States had stopped acting like Cold Warriors. The Soviets in January 1991 had joined the U.S.-led coalition that expelled Soviet ally Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. In October 1990, the Soviets watched Germany re-unify inside NATO – the antithesis of Soviet policy imperatives during the Cold War. And even earlier, each side had pronounced the Cold War at an end. So perhaps we should only take December 1991 as the outer limit of a range of possible termination dates.

For the beginning of the range, the earliest limit, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush has provided a date. While President Reagan strolled buoyantly through Moscow during his May 1988 summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush vacationed at the family summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine. On June 1, 1988, the newspapers featured the surreal photograph of the U.S. President walking in Red Square next to the Kremlin, with a U.S. military officer only a few feet away carrying the locked briefcase (the so-called “football”) with the codes that would launch U.S. nuclear weapons – the largest single number of which would land precisely where Reagan and the officer were standing. Starved for news in Kennebunkport, reporters wrung a dour reaction from the Vice President to the euphoria in Moscow. Bush commented, “The Cold War's not over."

By the end of 1988, many Cold Warriors disagreed with President-elect Bush. On December 7, 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev made his famous speech at the United Nations, which Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan summed up as follows: "In December 1988, Gorbachev went to the General Assembly of the United Nations and declared, 'We in no way aspire to be the bearer of ultimate truth.' That has to have been the most astounding statement of surrender in the history of ideological struggle." For other observers of Gorbachev's speech, it was not so much the ideological concessions as the unilateral military cutbacks that most impressed. Retired Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, a former NATO commander and top aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, called the cuts "the most significant step since NATO was founded" and said they opened the way to broad military reductions on both sides.

The incoming Bush administration did not see it that way. To a remarkable degree only obvious in hindsight, the transition from the Reagan administration to the Bush administration in January 1989 was one from doves to hawks. Senior officials like deputy national security adviser Robert Gates saw Gorbachev’s reforms as a clever way for the Soviets to buy time, convincing the West to let down its guard, while the USSR readied a new strategic competition. President-elect Bush demurred when Gorbachev tried to jump-start arms control discussions during the last Reagan-Gorbachev meeting on Governor’s Island, New York in December 1988 – much to Gorbachev’s frustration. Instead of picking up where Reagan had left off, Bush decreed a thorough strategic review of U.S. policy that tied up the bureaucracy and the White House staff for months, creating a sort of vacuum in superpower relations and putting off his own first summit with Gorbachev for almost a year (December 1989 at Malta). The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, later described this period with a book chapter titled “Washington Fumbles”; while Gorbachev’s national security adviser Anatoly Chernyaev used “The Lost Year” for his own chapter heading – not referring to the loss of Eastern Europe in 1989 but to the missed opportunities for major arms reductions like Reagan’s.

Top Soviet officials announced the end of the Cold War over and over in 1989, but they did not hear the echo they sought from Washington, and they had mixed feelings about the loud reverberations they heard in Eastern Europe. In January 1989 in Vienna, for example, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze greeted the opening of the Conventional Forces in Europe talks by saying that disarmament progress "has shaken the iron curtain, weakened its rusting foundations, pierced new openings, accelerated its corrosion." But in March, a group of Hungarian reform Communists headed by the new party chief Karoly Grosz came to see Gorbachev to ask, among other things, how far they should go? At that very moment, the leaders of Polish Solidarity were negotiating arrangements with the Polish Communist Party for more-or-less free elections in June. According to the secret Hungarian record of the March conversations, the Soviet leader tried to have it both ways, proclaiming again that the Brezhnev Doctrine was dead and that military interventions should be “precluded in the future.” But Gorbachev also flashed a red light of sorts: the “boundaries” for any changes should be “the safekeeping of socialism and assurance of stability.” Left unsaid was what the Soviets would do if the boundaries were breached; the threat was still there (the Soviet press still carried the occasional bout of Stalinist nostalgia) but the reformers were pretty much on their own.

The most characteristic Gorbachev pronouncement embodied these contradictions. On July 6, 1989, Gorbachev told the Council of Europe at Strasbourg that the "common European home.... excludes all possibility of armed confrontation, all possibility of resorting to the threat or use of force, and notably military force employed by one alliance against another, within an alliance, or whatever it might be." So the Brezhnev Doctrine really was dead. But a close look at Gorbachev’s vision does not suggest cohabitation as the lead up to marriage, but rather a semi-attached house, a home with a wall dividing the living spaces of two families, NATO and the Warsaw Pact each intact but sharing the backyard barbeque and swingset.

How the East Europeans Ended the Cold War:

Into the superpower vacuum rushed the East Europeans. The Poles were in the lead, as usual. The martial law of 1981 had only suppressed but not solved the underlying economic problems and the social protest (one of every six Poles had joined Solidarity, by far the largest mass movement against Communism in Eastern Europe). Renewed strikes at the famous Gdansk shipyards in August 1988 had forced new negotiations, and by February 1989 the “round table” talks focused on how to hold elections and what kind of head start the Communists would require even to deign to participate (guaranteed seats, lower house set-asides, etc.). One model came from March’s modified-limited-hangout election in the Soviet Union for the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, in which Andrei Sakharov himself – the Nobel Prize-winning dissident, physicist, father of the Soviet H-bomb – took a seat and a microphone. In May the Hungarians began to open their borders, and started a trickle of East Germans heading west. Some observers realized what they were seeing – in May 1989, these extraordinary developments led former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to tell the Washington Post's Don Oberdorfer: "We are quite literally in the early phases of what might be called the postcommunist era."

The Polish elections provided the first earthquake. On June 4, 1989 the Poles took their ballots and painstakingly crossed out the names of the Communist candidates, leading to a 99-to-1 landslide in the Polish Senate that stunned the ruling Party. At the first Politburo meeting after the election, the Communists complained of “a bitter lesson,” “the party are not connected with the masses,” and “we trusted the Church and they turned out to be Jesuits.” The young comrade Kwasniewski commented, “it’s well known that also party members were crossing out our candidates” (he learned his electoral lessons well and in 1995 beat Lech Walesa to become President of Poland). But the same day that Poles voted also illustrated the roads not taken by the Soviet system, the repressive alternative always in the back of the minds of those making velvet revolutions: halfway around the world, the Chinese Communists brought in their tanks to crush the Tienanmen Square democracy demonstrators.

After the Polish elections, the pace of change in Eastern Europe just accelerated. On June 16, the Hungarians held the ceremonial re-burial of Imre Nagy, Stalinist informer turned leader of independent Hungary in 1956, executed as a counter-revolutionary after Moscow crushed the Hungarian uprising, and buried anonymously in a potters’ field. The crowd in Budapest clapped loudest for the speech that blasted the Communists’ air-brushed history and called for Soviet troops to get out of Hungary. In July, the Polish Communists failed in their attempt to make a coalition government and Solidarity votes made sure that former dictator Jaruzelski knew his election as president was due to them, but just barely. In August, long-time Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki took the reins as prime minister of the first non-Communist government in Poland since the Cold War started.

Arguably, the Mazowiecki government was the end of the Cold War in Europe. Robert Hutchings of the White House staff later wrote that "Most of us dealing with these issues in the United States or in Europe had our epiphanies, our moments of realization that the end of Europe's division might actually be at hand – not just as an aspiration for the 1990s but as an imminent reality. For many it came with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9; others may have had premonitions already in early 1989 (although surely not as many as later claimed such prescience). Mine came with the election of Tadeusz Mazowiecki and the early steps taken by his government. The United States was working hard to persuade the Soviet Union that self-determination in Eastern Europe could be achieved in a manner consistent with legitimate Soviet security interests; now, in Poland, the Mazowiecki government was living proof of that contention, offering an early glimmer of what post-Cold War Europe might look like. (To be sure, even the most optimistic scenario for this transition was still being measured in years, not months.)"

Inspired by Poland, Hungary ran its own version of round table talks over the summer and early fall of 1989, settling the terms for elections in 1990. The process featured a delicious irony, in that had early elections been held, right there in the fall of 1989, the reform Communists (the little Gorbachevs, so to speak) probably would have won; but the delay allowed the opposition space to make a case and dramatically shortened the reformers’ time on the stage. In May and then completely in September, the reformers had opened the Hungarian borders and saw a flood of East Germans come through, camping out in embassies and consulates, and finally embarrassing East German leader Erich Honecker so much that he allowed them to transit in sealed trains to the West – thus reversing the sealed train in which Lenin rode to the Finland Station in 1917. On October 25, 1989, as mass demonstrations mounted against the East German government, Gorbachev's spokesman, Gennadii Gerasimov, coined the most memorable phrase of all, when he told reporters with Gorbachev in Helsinki, Finland, that the "Frank Sinatra Doctrine" had replaced the Brezhnev Doctrine for the Soviets, referring to the singer's signature ballad, "I did it my way." Behind the scenes, the Soviets seem to have provided a key piece of pressure on the East Germans against police repression, especially in Liepzig.

The most public finale of the Cold War, of course, came with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. In the words of then-deputy national security adviser and future CIA director Robert Gates: "No one who watched on television will ever forget the images of crowds of East and West Germans dancing on top of the Wall, hacking away bits of it for souvenirs, and finally dismantling whole sections with construction machinery. If there ever was a symbolic moment when most of the world thought the Cold War ended, it was that night in Berlin.”

There was not universal joy, ironically. The West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, happened to be in Warsaw on November 9 and had to rush back when the news broke – yet another sign of how unexpected was the Wall’s collapse [see the Berlin section of this site for the inside story of the Communists’ press conference blunder that brought down the Wall]. In Kohl’s discussions with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the latter almost plaintively complained that “events are moving too fast” in East Germany, and if this continued (only hours later, the Wall fell) nobody would pay attention to poor Poland and all of West Germany’s help and money would focus on East Germany (as indeed it did).

The Kremlin was shocked, but remarkably, some of its top officials actually cheered. Gorbachev’s advisor Chernyaev wrote in his diary on November 10, 1989 the following extraordinary reflection on the annus mirabilis of 1989: “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the Socialist system is over. Following the PUWP [Polish United Socialist Party] and the HSWP [Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party] Honecker has left. Today we received messages about the ‘retirement’ of Deng Xiaopeng [Chinese Party leader] and [Bulgarian leader Todor] Zhivkov. Only our ‘best friends’ Castro, Ceausescu, Kim Il Sung are still around – people who hate our guts. But the main thing is the GDR, the Berlin Wall. For it has to do not only with ‘socialism’ but with the shift in the world balance of forces. This is the end of Yalta… of the Stalinist legacy and the ‘defeat of Hitlerite Germany.’ This is what Gorbachev has done. And he has indeed turned out to be a great leader. He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel.” Here is the tangible expression of Soviet “new thinking” and evidence of its central role in letting the Cold War end.

Among the East Europeans who ended the Stalinist system, when they thought the Cold War ended depended upon which country they lived in. For example, Zbigniew Bujak, the legendary Solidarity activist from the Ursus tractor factory outside Warsaw, said for him the death of Brezhnev in 1982 meant the end of the possibility of Soviet military invasion, and therefore the beginning of the political space to change Poland, the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In contrast, Czechoslovak dissidents who saw the police crack down on a student march on November 17, 1989, even after the Berlin Wall was down, kept expecting violent intervention from Czech and Soviet security forces as the crowds mounted in Wenceslas Square, as Vaclav Havel and socialism’s human face from 1968, Alexander Dubcek, spoke from the balconies – but the truncheons never came.

When Did the Cold War End for the United States?

Where was the evidence of "new thinking" by the United States? For the Russian historian Vladislav Zubok, that evidence finally appeared at Malta, at the Bush-Gorbachev summit in early December 1989. President Bush's restraint, his unwillingness to "dance on the Wall," so to speak, his reassurance to Gorbachev as superpower-peer, their joint press conference (the first in the history of superpower summitry) – all added up to the end of the Cold War. More support for this view came from Gorbachev's own statement, which appeared in Pravda on December 5, 1989, that "The world is leaving one epoch, the 'Cold War,' and entering a new one." Gennadii Gerasimov the phrase-maker told reporters after Malta: "We buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea."

But, again, these are the Soviet announcements of the end of the Cold War. For the American announcement, we must turn to Christmas Eve, Sunday, December 24, 1989. Secretary of State James Baker, appearing on NBC Television's "Meet The Press" show, said the United States would not object if the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies used military force to assist the Romanian revolutionaries who had just deposed the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in still-mysterious circumstances, amid apparent counter-attack from the Securitate. Raymond Garthoff describes the Baker statement as "an extraordinary illustration of how rapidly and far the changing situation in Eastern Europe had affected American thinking and U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.... It would have been hard to find a more striking example reflecting American recognition of the end of the Cold War."

Although the next day a White House "clarification" of Baker's remarks expressly opposed any Soviet intervention in Romania, the Secretary of State had already sent instructions to Moscow, tasking Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr., to feel out Soviet intentions on Romania. And so, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1989, with Moscow some eight hours ahead of Washington, Ambassador Matlock went to the Soviet Foreign Ministry and met with Deputy Foreign Minister I. P. Aboimov. According to the Soviet documents, Matlock's message – while veiled in diplomatic indirection – was as striking as anything Baker said on TV, amounting to an invitation for the Soviets to intervene in Romania. "Then Matlock touched on the issue that, apparently, he wanted to raise from the very beginning of the conversation… He let us know that under the present circumstances the military involvement of the Soviet Union in Romanian affairs might not be regarded in the context (podpadat' pod) of 'the Brezhnev doctrine.'"

The Soviet diplomat Aboimov quickly refused Matlock's implied invitation: "To this sounding out (zondazh) by the American [Ambassador] I answered completely clearly and unequivocally, presenting our principled position. I declared that we did not visualize, even theoretically, such a scenario. We stand against any interference in the domestic affairs of other states and we intend to pursue this line firmly and without deviations. Thus, the American side may consider that 'the Brezhnev doctrine' is now theirs as our gift."

This last phrase clearly refers to the American invasion of Panama which had just occurred on December 20, 1989. Some 13,000 U.S. troops had moved overnight into that Central American country to remove its dictator, Manuel Noriega, a long-time U.S. intelligence asset. The Soviet language here indicates that they believed the U.S. invitation to be at best "stupid," as foreign minister Shevardnadze later told American writers Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, and at worst a provocation intended to put the Soviet Union in a position parallel to that of the U.S. in Panama.

The day after Ambassador Matlock received the Brezhnev Doctrine as a Christmas gift, a Romanian firing squad shot Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu after a farcical trial. Over the next month, the Romanian revolution turned out to be a coup d' etat in effect, stage-managed by nomenklatura of the Ceausescu regime who did not hesitate to bring in the traditional Party enforcers, the truncheon-wielding miners, to crush dissent (as in the University of Bucharest student protests of April-June 1990). This murky history exemplifies precisely the lack of finality that Ambassador Hutchings refers to in his history of the end of the Cold War. For clarity, perhaps we need to step back and take the long view. What were the long-term changes and choices that brought the Soviet Union to the point of giving up the fight?

Text continues in the sub-unit "The Human Choices that Ended the Cold War"

About the Author

Thomas S. Blanton is the Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington D.C. Blanton served as the Archive's first Director of Planning & Research beginning in 1986, became Deputy Director in 1989, and Executive Director in 1992. He filed his first Freedom of Information Act request in 1976 as a weekly newspaper reporter in Minnesota; and among many hundreds subsequently, he filed the FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit (with Public Citizen Litigation Group) that forced the release of Oliver North's Iran-contra diaries in 1990. His books include White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan-Bush White House Tried to Destroy.